The map is not the territory

Regardless of what kind of theist I’m talking to online, I tend to run into a recurring argument in favor of their god:

  • My god is [such-and-such a thing].
  • The reality we observe is consistent with this kind of god.
  • Therefore, this god exists.

As far as I can tell, this kind of argument underlies all of apologetics, from William Lane Craig and Frank Turek to your typical evangelical Christian who’s just learning how to argue for what they believe.

This leads to something that’s been bothering me for a long time. Basically, it’s this: It’s all well and good to argue for a model which is consistent with reality. Given a good enough argument, I could even agree that a particular god concept could fit with what we understand.

But as Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.”

It really doesn’t matter how clever an argument a theist has for a particular model of God. This is an argument for a model, not for a being that actually exists. It’s a concept, not something real; that is, it’s just a map, not the territory.

The thing about concepts – “maps” – is that they’re not bound by reality. At best, a map is a reduced depiction of reality. At worst, they’re crude approximations – simplifications of reality designed to help us find the easiest explanation without having to bother with any of the details.

Maps necessarily can’t tell us everything about the world as it is, since any map that reproduced every part of reality would be indistinguishable from reality itself. They can be useful tools for finding our way around, but we should never confuse them for a perfect representation of the world as it actually is.

So, really, it doesn’t matter how well a theist can argue that their model of god is consistent with reality. An intricately detailed map of where we live is still not the actual place where we live. Theology of all stripes, no matter how simple or sophisticated, can only ever boil down to a process of map-building; since it’s independent of any investigation into what actually exists, it can’t tell us what exists – only give us descriptions of ideas that seem to fit with the limited set of information we have.

There’s another pesky detail about maps: we can create maps of places that don’t actually exist. So far as I can tell, the apologetics for gods of all stripes are of this type: maps of man-made concepts, with no reflection in reality.


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